Thursday, December 02, 2004

There's some great storytelling in heaven!

Tuesday, November 30 was a sad day when I opened an email from Janice delNegro, sharing that she had just learned that Jackie Torrence, storytelling legend, had died earlier that day from a fall that led to a heart attack. Since that post was made, there's been an outpouring of recollections and memories of this fine lady.

I never had the privilege of hearing Jackie tell in person. I have some of her stories on videotape, and a much loved volume that showcases not only her stories, but her incredibly expressive face and hands, in the book Jackie Tales. I had hoped to finally attend the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough Tennessee for the first time this past October, but my own performing schedule created conflicts for me, and I told myself, "Another year." What a loss for me. Although Jackie had suffered from declining health the past several years, through donations from the storytelling community the world over, she was able to come and perform one last time. The reports from those in attendence spoke of her stories just carrying her to a place where the illness faded away and the words and her face glowed.

Rather than trying to explain that which I've only experienced through static media, I have been given permission to share the story of another teller who had the wonderful gift of a weekend with Jackie at a time when she was just becoming a storyteller herself, Marilyn Kinsella of Fairview Heights, Illinois. In gifting me with her story, Marilyn said, "If there was one thing I learned from Jackie it was not to hold onto a story...give it wings." So in remembrance of Jackie and all the gifts of wings she shared, here is Marilyn's story.

On Butterfly Wings a tribute to Jackie Torrence who lighted on my

shoulder one hot August morning. By Marilyn Kinsella

It was the summer of 1981, and I had just arrived at Jonesborough, TN to attend a workshop sponsored by NAPPS on creative storytelling by someone named Jackie Torrence. I came from my home in Illinois with no idea who this person was that called herself “The Story Lady.” All I knew was that I wanted to be a storyteller.

For three days time stood still as Jackie spun her magic around our little group. She modeled, cajoled, scolded, and beamed – always knowing how to give…just enough.

That Saturday night there was to be a public concert with Jackie. The town would show up at the old Salt House to hear her. But, she wanted to share the stage with her newbies. Anyone who wanted to tell was welcome.
Most declined, but my hand shot straight up. This was what I came to do –to be a storyteller.

I chose to tell a version of “Wiley and the Hairy Man” that relied heavily on rhyme and meter. I was so nervous that I asked a fellow workshop attendee to follow along with me in the book – just in case I got lost. After all of Jackie’s coaching and coaxing, I still didn’t trust myself. I had to stop three times and ask my new friend, Norris Spencer, where I was. I thought I was a disaster. I’d never ever, ever be a storyteller.

The next morning we gathered to “critique” our attempts at telling. Before Jackie could say a word I blurted out…”All I needed to was tell the story until I got back on track!” Jackie just shook her head, “Mmm, mmm, mmm, didn’t I try to tell you that this weekend? You just had to learn it for yourself. Now the next time you get up to tell a story, you will know what to do.” (It was Jackie’s subtle way of telling me that I hadn’t failed at all, I had learned.)

That is the way she taught us all weekend– giving us just enough so we would have to struggle and work it out on our own. She saw in me (and everyone else) the potential to be a storyteller. She told each of us what our strengths and weaknesses were.

Later, on Sunday, when most had left, Jackie and Norris and I got some chicken salad sandwiches and bottles of Grape Nehi (or was it Orange Whistle?) to eat on the steps of the Old Courthouse. Suddenly, there was a rip in time and space. Things started to happen that I swear would never have happened if Jackie had not been there. Our senses heightened and stories began to appear along the main street and around every corner. “Listen. Pay attention,” Jackie said. “Stories are everywhere.” I had entered into her magical world where stories began.

Since I arrived by a Big Red bus and there was no bus station, I asked Jackie to stay with me until I could flag down the bus as it came swooping down the hill on 11E. When it arrived, I gave her a hug, and the bus doors opened. The bus was empty except for a little old lady sitting directly behind the bus driver. Normally, I would have taken a seat some ways away, but this little old lady was wearing a blue baseball cap and I remembered what Jackie had taught me – pay attention! This woman had a story. So, I asked her if I could sit next to her. She turned and looked at the rest of the empty bus and said, “Sure, go ahead.”

After I settled in, she looked at me with curious eyes, “And just what were you doing in Jonesborough, TN?” Well, that opened the floodgates for me. I started talking non-stop for the next hour. I told her about Jackie Torrence. I told her the stories she told, that the others told, that I told. Her eyes got big and wide, and I even caught the bus driver giving me strange looks in the rearview mirror. When my stories finally wore down, she told me her story.

She was a professor at MIT and was on her way to do a workshop in Chattanooga. The only reason she was on a bus was because the air controllers were on strike and she didn’t trust any greenhorn to bring a plane in safely. She said that when she was young she was sent to Japan after the bomb hit to help some students at an artists’ colony. Everything was in disarray or contaminated. So they used an ancient art form of taking cloth apart and making pictures using one thread at a time. It not only produced beautiful pictures but it was great therapy for these artists.

Then she looked at me and said, “Marilyn, you have discovered your artist’s palette this weekend with a lovely color on it called storytelling. You will want to work with this color until it is just the right shade and consistency, but soon you will discover other colors on your palette and when you combine those colors, your true artist self will shine through.

Whoa…did this little lady in a blue baseball cap really say that. We talked on until we parted ways in Knoxville. As she walked away I thought, “I’ve just met my angel and she was wearing a blue baseball cap.”

I would have never sat next to the woman if it hadn’t been for Jackie. She not only opened up the world of storytelling, she opened up the world to me. I could tell you many such times when the world stood still or the fabric of time ripped open. It was because I heeded the words of my teacher, my mentor, my friend, Jackie Torrence, “Listen…Pay attention.”

As the doors opened on the Big Red bus, I stepped back into my time, but something was different. Something had changed forever. I was a storyteller.

Marilyn A. Kinsella, Taleypo the Storyteller Fairview Heights, IL
Storyteller, Writer, Puppeteer, and Workshop Presenter

In honor of a woman once called a living legend in the storytelling world, share a story with someone you love. You can be sure all the saints and angels in heaven are enjoying her stories now.

To see more about Jackie's book mentioned here, read on.


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